Editors’ Note: With full acknowledgment of the big-picture implications of a pandemic that has already claimed thousands of lives, cratered global economies and closed international borders, Deadline’s Coping With COVID-19 Crisis series is a forum for those in the entertainment space grappling with myriad consequences of seeing a great industry screech to a halt. The hope is for an exchange of ideas and experiences, and suggestions on how businesses and individuals can best ride out a crisis that doesn’t look like it will abate any time soon. If you have a story, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
On March 2, stand-up comedian and Good Trouble actress Sherry Cola attended a special screening at the Soho House in West Hollywood for the uplifting Stephon Marbury documentary A Kid From Coney Island. Leaving in good spirits, Cola stepped into the elevator with a fellow Asian who was also at the popular L.A. spot. Four white men also entered. After casual greetings, one of them asked the two of them, “Do you have coronavirus?”
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“I looked at him and said, ‘Are you serious?'” Cola told Deadline. She told the man the question was inappropriate and that he needed to apologize. He ended up doing so, but at the same time, Cola admitted she was in shock.
She asked him, “Did you ask that because we’re Asian?” To which he responded, “No, I’m asking everyone.”
Cola’s experience occurred weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S. hard, and it was also just a taste of what was to come regarding the toxic treatment of Asian and Asian Americans during the current crisis.
COVID-19 may have emerged in Wuhan, China, but there is no reason to believe the virus is exclusively attached to Asians and Asian Americans. The World Health Organization has also gone on record to caution people from associating the virus with certain ethnic groups as it causes harmful stereotypes. But true to form, many in this country believe what they want to believe, and facts don’t matter. We are in an era where many live by the latter mantra, and President Donald Trump is leading the charge on a platform rife with misinformation and irresponsibility.
Trump’s constant use of the term “Chinese virus” during White House press conferences hasn’t helped anyone during a crisis where thousands are dying; it has spawned other derogatory terms including “Kung Flu” and the “Wuhan virus.” He said calling it the “Chinese virus” isn’t racist. His reasoning? “It comes from China, that’s why.” There is even an image floating around the Internet of a written speech where the “corona” in “coronavirus” was crossed out and replaced with “Chinese”.
Close up of President @realDonaldTrump notes is seen where he crossed out "Corona" and replaced it with "Chinese" Virus as he speaks with his coronavirus task force today at the White House. #trump #trumpnotes pic.twitter.com/kVw9yrPPeJ
— Jabin Botsford (@jabinbotsford) March 19, 2020
It wasn’t long before he tweeted: “It is very important that we totally protect our Asian American community in the United States, and all around the world. They are amazing people, and the spreading of the is NOT their fault in any way, shape, or form. They are working closely with us to get rid of it. WE WILL PREVAIL TOGETHER!” It was a twist of the knife to every Asian as it felt inauthentic, insulting and pandering. Even if it was a sincere attempt, the damage was done.
Sadly, Trump’s use of the term “Chinese virus” isn’t that big of a shock considering it’s coming from the same man who has called Latino immigrants rapists and criminals. Nonetheless, his words and actions have ramifications. It becomes a dangerous game of telephone as it plants seeds of false information that lead to baseless assumptions, like contracting coronavirus from Chinese food or believing every Asian is a carrier of COVID-19. In turn, it clears a path for acts of hate in a country already rife with racial tension.
As the outbreak progressed, Trump’s casual use of the term stoked the fire of xenophobia which is now blazing, with numerous reports of harassment of Asians and Asian Americans across the country. The Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council’s Stop AAPI Hate, an open forum to report discrimination against Asian Americans, has received more than 900 reports since it launched March 19. From threatening notes saying “Take the Chinese virus back to China” to a man spitting on Chinese woman, the number of incidents continues to grow. The FBI recently put out a report on the surge of Asian American hate crimes and documented a case in which a 2-year-old and 6-year-old were stabbed because the suspect thought they were Chinese and infecting others with coronavirus. The levels of severity with these stories vary from frightening to devastating — and it will resonate throughout the Asian communities long after this pandemic comes to an end.
Jiayang Fan, a staff writer for the New Yorker, detailed her own experience being harassed while taking out the trash. While minding her own business, a man accosted her, calling her a “fucking Chinese” and continued to verbally attack her. “I wasn’t offended. I was afraid. I was worried he knew where I lived,” she tweeted.
Went to take out trash.Was talking on phone in Chinese. Man walked by on sidewalk & in interest of social distancing,I said,"sorry, go ahead." "FUCKING CHINESE,"he yelled loud enough I could hear him over aide's voice on phone. I turned to look at him to make sure I heard right
— Jiayang Fan (@JiayangFan) March 18, 2020
Nora From Queens co-creator Teresa Hsiao said five of the women in her Asian American writers group have encountered forms of racism, while Tzi Ma, star of Tigertail and Mulan, was told to get into quarantine in a Whole Foods parking lot.
Paola Mardo shared her experience on her podcast Long Distance. While at Eagle Rock Plaza, a mall in Los Angeles frequented by the Filipino community, she encountered a woman — and a woman of color, no less — who blatantly said, out loud so she could hear, “Oh my God, please don’t give me the virus!”
Just NOW at Eagle Rock Plaza in Los Angeles. Im walking w a mask on bc an 80yo is staying with me. A woman said “OMG China brought this virus here.” I knew she wanted me to hear it. I walked in front of her to confirm. She stepped back and said “OMG pls don’t give me the virus”
— Paola Mardo (@paolamardo) March 15, 2020
Valerie Chow, founder of Thirsty Tiger TV, was violently attacked by a man in her neighborhood while walking her dog. “He saw me and began shouting, ‘Get away from me you nasty bitch, you have a disease, go back to China!’,” she said. “He threw punches at me and tried to kick my dog. He then chased me back to my building screaming.” Luckily, she got back into her apartment safely.
Jeane Phan Wong, a TV writer, encountered a man in Culver City who has been riding around on a bike on the westside, coughing on every Asian person he sees. “I was leaving the pharmacy and walking to my car when I saw this guy riding towards me,” she shared on Facebook to warn fellow Asians in the area. “Turns out he was trying to get closer to me because when he did, he dramatically coughed towards my direction.”
Journalist Jeff Yang, who co-hosts the They Call Us Bruce podcast and is the father of Fresh Off the Boat star Hudson Yang, was at a grocery store when an older masked white woman passed him and said “Fuck you!” for no reason. She ended up coughing directly at him and walking away.
So I had my first “breathing while Asian” moment.
Went out for groceries and an older masked white woman passing by the line shouted “FUCK YOU!” at me for no apparent reason. As I stared at her, she pulled off her mask, coughed directly at me, turned on her heel and walked off.
— Jeff Yang (@originalspin) March 23, 2020
Naomi Ko, an actress and filmmaker, was subject to intimidation when she was followed by three men on bikes while walking in her neighborhood. “When I picked up the pace they would ride faster to keep up with me,” she told Deadline. “I was really scared and was about to break into a run until an elderly white couple came around the corner. Then the three men rode past me.” She feels that if the couple wasn’t there, she would have been attacked.
In one of the most heartbreaking accounts, one Filipino woman in Los Angeles, who chose to remain anonymous, said her mom, who works as a hospice nurse in home healthcare, was not allowed in a patient’s house because their family said “they can’t risk any Asians in the house or they could all die.” As a result, she had to wait for the relief nurse to arrive, who was also Filipino.
“The family refused to let her in as well and called the company demanding they send a nurse that will actually take care of their parent and not get them killed,” she said. “My mom left calling me in tears because the patient had gone more than 12 hours without their meds and it would be her fault. The company did the right thing and paid her for the shift, but my mom was terrified she would be fired.”
These horrible stories reverberate through every single Asian community. Whether you’re Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, Pakistani, Filipino, Cambodian, Laotian — Asian-focused racism doesn’t bother to differentiate. It immediately puts every Asian on alert to protect themselves on top of staying safe from COVID-19. It’s infuriating, frustrating, frightening and disappointing in the fact that this is not a new thing for our country.
America finds strength as a melting pot of cultures and people, but the greatness of diversity has been countered by hurdles of bigotry and hate throughout history. Specifically, if any marginalized community is remotely connected to the cause of a crisis or pandemic, many will not waste a minute to wage all-out attack. This can be traced back all the way to the Middle Ages, when Jewish people were persecuted when they were accused of spreading the bubonic plague. In recent history, the LGBTQ community was vilified during the AIDS epidemic, while pandemics named after geographic regions and cultures like the Spanish flu, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and German measles have also brought about xenophobic tendencies. As a result, the World Health Organization changed the way they name infectious diseases in an effort to avoid stigmatizing communities.
This country is past finger-wagging and saying “That’s bad!” at these terrorizing hate crimes. Asians and Asian Americans have always had a strong sense of community and have supported each other. They take the high road by not sinking to toxic levels of ignorance. However, it’s in times like these when allies are needed.
During an interview on the New Hollywood Podcast, Little America executive producers and real-life couple Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani put it best when it comes to being an ally. “I think having each other helps,” she said. “If something was racist, I would take it on. If something was sexist, he would take it on.”
Gordon went on to explain that sometimes when you’re advocating for yourself, it can be difficult, but when someone’s in your corner who is not like you, it makes the advocacy land harder and stronger. This is the kind of allyship that teaches and can be effective. In the big picture, it’s not the job of Asians to teach others about their racism. Once this is realized, things will change.
Actor and author Maulik Pancholy is the co-founder of Act to Change, a nonprofit that works to eradicate bullying in the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. When it comes to being an ally, he urges people to stand up for others if you see something happening and offer help. “Help spread education — teach others why it’s wrong to identify this virus with people from a specific country,” Pancholy told Deadline.
On Friday, Pancholy will host a virtual event with Hudson Yang, New York congresswoman Grace Meng, and Dr. Vivek Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General under President Barack Obama, to shed light on the incidents and what we can do to help.
Pancholy also encourages Asians and non-Asians who want to support to participate in online campaigns like #WashTheHate and #HateIsAVirus. Broadway Diversity Project’s Diane Phelan (School of Rock, The King and I, Here Lies Love) started the #RacismisaVirus initiative which gained support from [rominent members of the Asian American Broadway community including Marc Dela Cruz (Hamilton), Telly Leung (Aladdin, Allegiance, Rent) and Ann Harada (Avenue Q, SMASH). Thirsty Tiger TV’s Chow has launched the non-profit #becool2asians, a grassroots media campaign with the mission of creating positive, factual counter-messaging against misinformation and anti-Asian hate during the pandemic.
“Our goal is two-fold,” Chow told Deadline. “First, we will regularly release videos that spread the message to mainstream America that we have an epidemic of racism against their fellow Americans who are of Asian descent and to #becool2asians.”
She continued, “Our second goal is mobilizing folks of Asian descent to be of service during this time of crisis,” and she is working hard on sourcing personal protective equipment to donate to hospitals, reaching out to doctors who are willing to donate free telemedicine consultation, and launching mask drives or donating meals to those affected.
All that has been discussed here is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to unpacking the treatment of the Asian community during this crisis. It doesn’t even include the tone-deafness of media outlets using images of Asians in masks for their coronavirus-related articles, or the ridiculous assumption that eating Chinese food can cause coronavirus. In hindsight, the people being attacked are linked to countries that have learned to flatten the curve and acted fast when it comes to COVID-19. South Korea, Japan and China have all adhered to regulations when it comes to the virus, while America is still trying to convince its population not to go out to a crowded St. Patrick’s Day celebration, or attend a coronavirus party (yup, this was a real thing).
Trump’s misrepresentation of the Asian community via the use of “Chinese virus” gives Hollywood even more reason to champion authentic narratives about Asians and other marginalized communities. “Representation integrates people from diverse backgrounds into the everyday fabric of our lives,” Pancholy says. “It makes our stories known. When we get to know someone from another culture by seeing them in the books we read, the TV shows we watch, or the movies we see, we start to relate to them as fellow human beings.”
He continued, “That builds empathy. To me, empathy is the antidote to hate. We definitely need more of that right now.”
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